Mustard in flower

Brother Grain and Sister Mustard Seed — Mark 4:26-34

Kathleen Rushton explores two parables of the reign of God in Mark 4:26-34.

I was forking potatoes when Joseph, my young neighbour, exclaimed: “Ours come nice and clean in a plastic bag.” I felt sad. How far his understanding was from my own childhood farm experience where everyone I knew grew vegetables. The garden-less earth surrounding Joseph’s home and supermarket shelves of “clean” vegetables divorced this child from the abundance of the Earth.

I fossicked for the remains of the seed potato that had fallen into the earth, died and given new life … all a bit distant for a six-year-old. So I went to the shed for a packet of radish seeds. Joseph and I prepared the earth and planted the little seeds. I hoped to connect his experience of “nice and clean” with the wonder of the cycle of growth in the good earth. Joseph waited and watched. His excitement grew in his pilgrimages to the garden as little sprouts pushed up and leaves appeared. What was happening beneath, in the soil, was beyond his understanding.

Parables of the good earth

The two parables, in a series of parables and sayings in Mark 4:1-34, sketch the experience of farmers with plants that provide food: grain (Mk 4:26-9), and mustard (Mk 4:30-2). Grain — wheat and barley — were vital basic foods. Mustard seeds were used for seasoning and in healing remedies. The leaves were eaten raw or cooked. The parables don’t tell of the farmers’ experience. They don’t mention the hardships of preparing the earth — ploughing, harrowing, arid earth, lack of water, tending, weeding, protecting from insects and disease. Absent, too, is reference to the toil for landlords, struggles of tenant farmers, debt, enslavement and dispossession. What is going on here?

Those who hear Mark’s first parable of the grain are not pressed into activity (Mk 4:26-9). While it tells of sowing and reaping, the emphasis of the story is on the reverent wait of the people of the land. Today many people never see a ploughed field. If they do, they may think of what is going on beneath the earth as a biological happening only. It was very different for the people of Jesus’ time who when walking through or alongside a ploughed field, understood plants and the potential food on which they would live, as God’s creative work. This connection was on their lips and in their hearts, for praise of God and creation are at the core of the Psalms and Jewish prayer. Plants and Earth’s processes are agents revealing God’s mercy. The two parables extend that awe-filled, interconnected way of viewing all that is, within the basileia, the reign of God.

Parables of awe-filled gazing

The main character in the grain parable is not the sower or the reaper but the other-than-human, the seed, which ripens despite all the forces stacked against it. Central to this parable is the wonder of creation. The farmer who had scattered the seed on the earth (Mk 4:26) goes about his ordinary life “night and day” in the Jewish rhythm of time where sunset is the beginning of the new day (Mk 4:27). The farmer does not understand how the seed grows. The Earth produces growth “of itself” (automatê Mk 4:28) without visible cause. The energy of the seed is unexplained. The focus is the working of the natural processes of Earth which transform the seed.

This parable of gazing directs the reader to the wonder of seeing Earth with fresh eyes. While other parts of the gospel stress the hardships of life on the land, this parable creates peace and composure for weary people as it illustrates what happens when God is totally in charge of life and right-relations exist. Through the agency of the seed, readers discover that the basileia of God develops at God’s initiative and its growth is unexplained and unseen.

The second parable does not mention a human agent either. A mustard seed, the other-than-human main character, is sown (Mk 4:32). The end is in the beginning; the great in the small; the present is busy developing though hidden and insignificant. The seed grows “into the greatest shrub of all and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in shade” (Mk 4:32). This mysterious saying was well-known (cf. Psalm 104:12; Ezekiel 17:23). The image of the world tree in whose branches birds find shelter was used widely and also as an imperial symbol of empire, basileia. Is Mark’s shrub suggesting a different quality for God’s cosmic reign, basileia?

Contrasting stories of seeds

Two contrasting stories of growth come to mind. In story one, without the knowledge of most New Zealanders and with no possibility of public oversight, the Government has and is sowing secret agreements. Sprouting is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP or TPPA) which, if concluded, will be an international treaty between New Zealand, the United States and 10 other Pacific Rim countries. Its main aim is to grow an attractive environment where its branches shelter economic empires (overseas companies) to operate here (and in 11 other countries). New Zealand will be bound not to the interests of ordinary New Zealanders but to those of big transnational corporations. 

A significant concern is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) which would give foreign investors the right to sue our government in private offshore tribunals for introducing laws or policies which they claim would significantly hurt their investments. This would hamstring New Zealand's moves to strengthen environmental protection. Other aspects of TPP would undermine Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the environment, human rights and democracy. (See, and Tui Motu, May 2015.)

In story two, Wangari Maathai returned to her village in Kenya after years studying overseas, and discovered women did not have firewood to cook food. The once fertile landscape where her grandmother grew food was parched; gone was the ancient fig tree by the depleted, polluted, once clear stream. Forests had been cut down. Wangari gathered the women. They collected seeds from distant trees, sowed them and nurtured the seedlings until they were ready to plant as trees. The wellbeing of earth, water and people returned and flourished. This founder of the Green Belt Movement and Kenyan Nobel Peace Laureate’s simple act of sowing seeds to plant trees, grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights and defend democracy. (See, www.takingrootfilm)

Pondering parables of the basileia

New Testament scholar Luise Schottroff laments that modern readers do not see Jesus’ nature parables as “a school for appreciating God’s creation.” Maybe this month we could practise an appreciation of creation. Who or what shelters in my branches and in the organisations with which I associate? In the two parables, how do the other-than-human characters and the processes of the Earth reveal God’s mercy? How do the waiting and gazing parables extend my appreciation of the interconnected relationships of all life in the basileia of God? Waiting and gazing will definitely not be passive activities for us.

 Published in Tui Motu InterIslands June 2015.